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Arkansas House Flip: GOP Holds for 1st Time Since 1874

4 min read

Republicans assumed control of both chambers of the Arkansas Legislature on Thursday after delayed election returns showed the party winning a 51st seat in the House, as the GOP transitioned into its newly minted role as the majority party in the state Senate.

Sue Scott won a House seat in Benton County, defeating an independent candidate and giving the GOP the votes necessary to control the 100-member chamber. Results had been delayed due to software problems in the county’s vote-counting equipment.

The GOP holds a 51-48-1 edge in the state House, with the Green Party holding one seat — though a Democratic candidate who lost Tuesday has asked for a recount. Republicans won a 21-14 margin in the Senate in Tuesday’s election, and new members of the upper chamber met Thursday and elected a Republican to lead them in 2013.

Democrats had controlled the Arkansas Legislature since 1874, when Reconstruction ended here. Arkansas was the last state in the old Confederacy to never have Republicans hold either chamber at a Statehouse since the end of the post-Civil War period.

Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, noted that he’ll take over as Senate president as the chamber faces a daunting list of tasks that includes a projected $358 million shortfall in the state’s Medicaid program and questions over whether to expand its eligibility under the federal health care law.

“We’re prepared to work together to solve these problems,” he told the Senate.

Lamoureux’s election to the leadership role came with no opposition on a voice vote. Lamoureux will replace Senate President Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro.

The Senate had previously elected Democratic Sen. Larry Teague as its next president late last year, but opened up nominations Thursday following Tuesday’s election results. Lamoureux was the only candidate running.

The leadership of the House remained up in the air. House members planned to gather at the Capitol on Friday to make committee assignments and prepare for next year’s session, but it was unclear when or how Republicans would try to elect a new leader for that chamber.

Democratic Rep. Darrin Williams, the speaker-designate for next year’s session, said he was waiting to see what would happen with the recount in a House race in east Arkansas. A Democratic state House candidate who lost a race Tuesday, L.J. Bryant, asked clerks in four counties to tally ballots again in an effort to overturn a 44-vote victory by John K. Hutchison, a Republican.

Even if the results flip, the Democrats still will have lost a majority they’ve enjoyed for 138 years.

Election Commission panels in Independence and Poinsett counties scheduled meetings for Friday to discuss how to proceed with the recount, while the Craighead County commission met late Thursday. Jackson County’s meets Tuesday.

Republicans said Thursday they had dispatched a legal team to monitor the recount.

House Republican Leader Bruce Westerman said that on Friday he plans to submit a request from the incoming 51 GOP representatives to House Speaker Robert Moore for a new election to select the chamber’s leader for next year. State law requires Moore to hold a House caucus on the next speaker if at least 50 incoming members sign a petition asking for one.

Williams had been elected speaker-designate this year, and the House traditionally formally seats the speaker on the first day of the session in January.

Moore said he would hold the House meeting next week to give potential candidates time to prepare. Westerman said scheduling the vote next week would also allow time for the recount to occur.

“We want this to be a smooth transition process,” Westerman said. “I know the Senate was able to do it with a smooth transition, and we want ours to be a smooth transition as well.”

Williams said, meanwhile, he would continue preparing for next year’s session as speaker.

“Until there’s a vote telling me I’m not (speaker), I don’t think it’s proper for me to stop doing something or to not prepare,” Williams said.

With leadership questions surrounding the razor-thin margin Republicans claim in the House, Senate leaders sought to paint their chamber as working in a bipartisan fashion after a bitterly fought election. Lamoureux was nominated for the Senate presidency by Democratic Sen. David Wyatt, who won re-election Tuesday in a heated race.

“I continue to believe we will do what’s best for Arkansas,” said Teague, who was Lamoureux’s pick to co-chair the powerful Joint Budget Committee. “Now the vision may be a little different, but I still think it will be business as usual, us getting in here and trying to do our work and take care of the people.”

But the advantage Republicans have in shaping policy next year was clear as the Senate set committee assignments. The GOP holds a majority of seats on all but two of the Senate’s top committees. The Public Health Committee, which will play a key role in Medicaid discussions, was split evenly between parties. Republicans hold a majority of seats on the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, which will likely hear a proposal by Beebe to further reduce the grocery tax and other tax cut ideas.

The assignments were welcome news for Rep. Bryan King, a senator-elect from Green Forest, who said he plans on trying again with a proposal next year to require voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot. King’s photo ID measure passed the House last year, but died before the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Republicans now control five of the eight seats on that committee.

“I think we’re going to finally get the voter reforms here that I’ve always tried to pass here,” King said. “I’m ecstatic.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.) 

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